Interviews

Non-Judgemental Support

A conversation with Imani Harris

Imani Harris is a third generation Bronzeville resident. He invited me into his office on 43rd and King Drive, surrounded by binders of casework, as he finished his term as Director of Clinical Services at Centers for New Horizons. At this same location a year earlier, he wore a similar expression of concern and frustration when he spoke to some students I worked with who had faced a particularly violent summer weekend. His large presence in the room was one of authoritative urgency. He asked the students to come to him for free and talk about their emotions, comparing backed-up emotions to a backed-up digestive system: “If your system gets backed up, your whole health will implode.” In our conversation this June, he spoke with a rhythmic, decisive silence between his words, occasionally cleaning his glasses—the calm of a mental health specialist who faces the collective trauma of the neighborhood in his work and his community.

Trauma, depression, anxiety. The depression and anxiety are often related to the trauma. My role here at Centers for New Horizons is that I oversee all the clinical services for our contracts. Our major contract is with CHA, the Chicago Housing Authority. So I provide clinical services to CHA residents in the Bronzeville area. We also service a little stretch in South Shore, and the clinical services include mental health assessment, substance abuse assessment, individual therapy, and family therapy. We do group workshops.

One of the things I want to do this year and moving forward is have a more concentrated effort serving youth. I feel like we do a decent job at it, but I feel like there’s more the clinical department can do, in terms of outreach, and I believe some of our groups are wanted and needed. We’ve had a struggle in the past marketing these groups. We’d typically market these groups in a very clinical way, and it’s really not attractive. Y’know, there’s still a big stigma when it comes to mental health. People think if you’re going to see a therapist, that means you’re mentally ill. And that’s just not true. So we’re still fighting that.

How do you work against that stigma?

I think if you start looking at the African-American community, the stigma is particularly apparent. I explain the difference between our services and what psychiatric services are, ’cause a lotta people bunch it all up! “You’re seeing a therapist? That must mean you’re on meds and you’ve been locked down in a psych ward!” So my first step is educating the difference on what those things are. I like to share stories, like, “Some of the most healthy people I know are in therapy. All the therapists I know have or are in therapy. I have a therapist!” I’ll self-disclose. Self-disclosing at that point is appropriate. I don’t know anybody who can’t benefit from a non-judgmental support in your life. I try to normalize it, basically.

I love the people. And I’m rooting for us. I was born and raised here. I’m from Bronzeville. My mother went to Phillips Academy; my grandmother went to Phillips; I went to De La Salle Institute on 35th. My mother grew up in Lake Meadows; I lived on 44th and Indiana; I lived on 44th and Calumet. I worked in other cities and states, and ended up coming back. The clients and people I meet hereare just totally amazing people, and I’m just rooting for them. And one thing that’s a personal turnoff for me is this savior sort of mentality, like, “oh, let’s be the savior,” like no, that’s not it at all. But I feel like, as a person who’s been from here, lived away, learned some things in school, and came back, who better to come and work with my people than me? I bring a level of understanding especially to the clinical and mental health piece, especially on so many cultural levels.

I think professionally and personally there’s nothing more of a turnoff than you go in and say, “I need you to look at my hand,” and they look at your foot. For example, I had a client come in, she had a four-year-old granddaughter. Speaking of trauma, this all kind of ties to what we’re talking about. So she comes in, the four-year-old is having some behavior concerns, there’s some DCFS involvement in that. So she comes in talking about how her granddaughter is talking to a spirit in the house. She was like, I see my granddaughter standing in the corner, talking. She’s talking to my ex-fiancé. His name was Rudy. Rudy died in this house before she was born.

Some clinician without the cultural understanding would have been taking notes like “perceptual disturbances, hallucinations,” but she was telling me that she believes her granddaughter has the veil. Are you familiar with this concept, the veil? She was like, “I think my granddaughter has the veil.” I’m not sure how to explain it very well, but basically the veil means you have some energized connection to your ancestral past through the spirit world. You can see, speak to spirits, and they can see and speak back or through you, things like that. So she was figuring her granddaughter had the veil, and she figured [it was] because her ex-fiancé was shot and killed by police in the apartment. So it was this interesting story, interesting dynamic. But imagine if she was sitting in front of a clinician, without the understanding or compassion for those cultural components, that assessment could’ve went a million different ways. Whereas she can come here and get understanding. I want you to feel free to talk about it; you’re gonna be around people where you don’t have to assimilate, you don’t have to code switch, you can just, be yourself.

I think our community, historically, is very resilient and strong and very passionate, but we deal with things that are just not okay. And I think if you go to other places in our city, our state, our country, people of that age don’t deal with those issues on an ongoing basis like that.

This isn’t okay, how we normalize trauma and we normalize violence. It impacts kids around here, what route they take to the store. It impacts the decision to even go outside that day. It impacts the decision of what sides of the street they’re gonna walk on, who they’re gonna walk with. Saying hello to certain people. And those are things, I feel, kids shouldn’t have to worry about.

Like you hear about your buddy’s sister getting shot Friday? You’re at school Monday, like nothing happened. So there’s an expectation almost, there’s a demand, to get over it. When you don’t allow time to deal with it, it has an impact. One’s mental health is as important as physical health. If you were sitting at home with a smashed hand, you would probably seek medical attention at some point. Same thing goes for our spirit.

Where do you think the demand “to get over it” so quickly comes from?

I think from the top down. What I mean by that is it’s systemic. It is familial. I don’t think moms or dads are saying, “Oh sweetie, your friend got killed, maybe you should stay home and we should talk about it. Maybe this is important enough. Or maybe we should go to the school and try to figure out how we’re all going to keep each other safe.” Or, “This is a big deal that someone got beat up on the way home,” ’cause kids get beat up and shot up on the way home all the time. I wonder if a kid in Wilmette—if a kid got beat up on the way home from Wilmette High School, if there would be some sort of rallying call, people saying, “We’re not going to deal with this.” There may be an extra police car on that beat. You know, who knows, I’m not saying it’s a fact, but you wonder about that type of stuff. I think because it happens so much here, people literally have a mentality of, “Well, what are we gonna do about it.” It’s a result of feeling helpless.

We all know about the basic needs, about Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs: water, shelter, food—I don’t care who you are, you need these. We have emotional basic needs too: attention, control and power over our own lives, acceptance, recognition, fun, touch—sexual touch, non-sexual touch—safety, security. It’s not a basic want. It’s a basic need. When that thing is missing, it impacts people. And safety of community is the responsibility of government.

For youth and adults, the biggest challenge is safety. But it’s safety for youth, more so. Youth don’t feel safe. And you know, the one thing I noticed was different is that when I was coming up, you had basically two major main gangs, and you had a bunch of subgroups under those gangs. You had brothers, and you had folks. And so even though you might be a brother, but you might be a Vice Lord, you might be a Conservative Vice Lord, Four Hundred Corner Hustler, Mickey Cobra Stones. You might be GD (Gangster Disciples), BD (Black Disciples), BGB, Del Viking, all this other stuff, you know. Now, the gangs are really neighborhood-ish. It’s like, I live on 40th and Lake Park. So we’re the 40th and Lake Park boys. So now you can’t really walk down on my block without getting checked, harassed. I think it’s a perfect storm for conflict, you know. And then, when a lot of these kids go to the same school: so we might all go to Phillips Academy, but you live in Oakwood Shores, and I live in Lake Park Place, so we naturally are natural enemies.

And this is from me being a part of a lot of youth forums: youth have no confidence in police help. Zero. And they have no confidence in the cops. And it comes from…I remember this one kid telling me that there was one big fight in front of the school, and the police car was on the premises, kind of off in the distance, maybe the car was thirty, forty yards away, big huge fight, police didn’t do anything. Another student told me a story of a kid getting jumped and the kid got jumped on the police car. So there’s no respect. They believe that cops are not truly interested in helping.

About twenty years ago, there became this thought process where police presence, it was thought if you put a police car on a block, it will deter some of this “bad stuff.” “Just put the cops out there.” And I wonder if police got it in mind, “all we gotta do is pull up and if they see the blue and white the fact that they see it should be effective,” but it’s not enough.

I would organize police differently. I would go old school. I believe in police officers walking the beat. You know, getting to know your community, you should know Mrs. Johnson and be able to have a conversation with her, and the police officer should be able to walk up to a group of kids and be like, “I know all of your older brothers. I’ve known all of y’all since y’all were crawling around in diapers here in the sandbox.” Y’know ’cause then you get more of an understanding that way. There needs to be more of a connection. So one structural change? I would change how security and police officer presence is in poorer areas. Because I think people have got to feel safe, because it’s a basic human need.

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